The man who died in his car

I religiously read the daily obituaries in our local newspaper.
There, I said it.
I was confronted by my wife about this morbid practice, but I couldn’t answer her other than to venture that I wanted to know who died in my area. Is that so bad? I always rationalize it by saying how embarrassing it would be to inquire after someone’s health, only to be confronted by hurt stares and a terse reply that the said person died two months ago, right? If it was coupled with black eyeliner, piercings and nocturnal visits to the cemetery, then it be something else, right? Anyway, besides the eye roll I received from my supposedly better half, let me get on with my story…
A small notice grimly informed the world that Boeta Achmat Bedford was no longer with us and that he passed away suddenly at home at the age of 82. The article goes further to say that he is fondly remembered by his seven surviving children, 29 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren. Everyone who knew the family knew that there were two facts omitted from the article. The first one was that Boeta Achmat died in an engine-less, beaten-up old car in the street in front of his house and the other is that he was a contented old man and he probably died one too.
I met Boeta Achmat many decades ago through my acquaintance with his youngest son, who was at school with me at the time. We were both avid rugby players and, after practice, I would sometimes accompany him to his house for a glass of watered-down Kool-Aid. Raspberry, with precious little sugar. My goodness, as I am writing this, my throat is restricting at the mere memory of it, and, although I now shudder at the memory of the taste, I can assure you that after a long summer’s day in Cape Town with no money to speak of, the Kool-Aid was like manna from heaven.
The house was in a suburb very close to the slopes of Table Mountain, so the street was at a 45-degree incline running down to the city bowl. It was a small semi-detached one that had a long passage with bedrooms running off the one side and ending up in an open lounge and kitchen. The toilet was outside in the yard. The one thing that always struck me about the house was that it resembled one of those ant farms that were interesting only for the first few hours after you bought it. It was busy beyond belief. There were kids everywhere. I swore that if you did not look where you stepped in that house, you would have stepped on a child. Boeta Achmat had nine children and although he was happily married to a sweet round woman that never said a word, the same could not be said about his children holding on to spouses. Inevitably, after disastrous liaisons that ended up in either divorce or death, his children would find their way back to their parental home with their own children in tow. Unfortunately, all of the daughters inherited the fertility streak from their mother and procreated with frightening regularity.
After the mother passed away suddenly in her sleep, again, without a word or sound, the elder set of daughters, took it upon themselves to arrange the house in a proper dormitory for the siblings and their kids and relegated poor Boeta Achmat to the stoep-room. This was the hastily enclosed veranda that was converted to a small little room with a dresser and a single bed. The room was so small and narrow that the single bed barely fit and that he had to shuffle sideways to get past it to get to the dresser that were shoved into the back of the veranda. Through all of this, Boeta Achmat never said a word and never complained. He even held his tongue when they assigned one of the older boys, whose roaming eye could not be controlled in the crowded bedrooms, to his bed.
No one knew how it started, but by popular opinion, they say it started in the middle of summery January in Cape Town. This usually meant blustering south-easter and high temperatures. Boeta Achmat was tinkering with the indicator switches of the car that was parked in the road. It was an old Mercury whose engine was sorely in need of another engine and the body was slowly being devoured by the rain and sea-air. By this time, thieves had made off with the car wheels and it was standing on cement blocks. The winds were especially fierce that day, so he had all the windows rolled up. After an hour or so, the warmth in the car made him sleepy and rather than braving the winds to go for a lie-down, he reclined the seat and closed his eyes. This proved to be a watershed moment for the old man. When he woke up a few hours later, he felt refreshed and mellow. He told his daughter that evening that he liked the quietness of the car. After breakfast the following morning, he took a slow walk to the corner shop, bought his Cape Times and his three loose cigarettes for the day and promptly made himself comfortable on the backseat of the car. This became a ritual for Boeta Achmat as well as the afternoon siesta when returning from mosque for the afternoon prayers.
He also became uncharacteristically possessive over that space and defended it fiercely against invading grandchildren who all wanted to see what Boeya was doing in the car. He raised his voice and put his foot down when the scrap metal wagon offered a ‘great’ deal that involved a box of snoek off-cuts and tail-less crayfish to the daughters on removing the eyesore from their front door. He, in the end, conceded to them removing the engine a few months later.
As the months passed and winter rolled in on the back of a tablecloth spilling over the cliffs of Table Mountain, he used discarded newspaper and duct-tape to meticulously close up all the holes the North-Wester was using to spew rain and dust into the car. He was not particularly successful as the interior of the car had a constant smell of wet socks, cigarette butts and, well, old people.
Boeta Achmat had always been plagued by a constant cough that became more pronounced during the winter months, probably because of the countless years of dust he inhaled while worked in the building trade as a bricklayer. The three-Stuyvesants-a-day smoking habit didn’t help either. During a particularly bad patch, the children ganged up on him and physically forced him indoors for a couple of weeks. He moped around the house and uncharacteristically snapped at everyone. It is not known who were happier when his chest cleared sufficiently for him to venture back into his car, Boeta Achmat or his children. After that particular episode, no one messed with him again.
When summer rolled around again, Boeta Achmat was virtually living in the car, apart from toilet breaks, eating, changing clothes and trips to the mosque to pray. By this time, the family had resigned themselves to the situation and ascribed it quietly to the eccentricity of an old man.
No one knew when exactly Boeta Achmat died. The rumour-mongers were spreading vicious stories that the old man was dead for three days before the smell forced someone to check. In reality, the eldest daughter discovered his lifeless body when he did not come in for supper.
The car was gone two days after the funeral.

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